News & Analysis
Follow-Up: More of Powell's key claims undermined

Ali Abunimah, Electronic Iraq

9 February 2003

Since an initial analysis, more key claims made by U.S. Secretary Colin Powell in the Security Council last week, to justify a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq have been exposed as exaggerations or outright untruths, and further doubt has been cast on the reliability of U.S. information.

The reliability of U.S. 'intelligence sources'

Throughout his 5 February Security Council presentation, Powell relied heavily on secret "sources." At one point he stated,

"As it did throughout the 1990s, we know that Iraq today is actively using its considerable intelligence capabilities to hide its illicit activities. Iraq is relentlessly attempting to tap all of their communications, both voice and electronics. I would call my colleagues' attention to the fine paper that the United Kingdom distributed yesterday which describes in exquisite detail Iraqi deception activities."
It is now clear that the document cited by Powell, and claimed by the U.K. government to be an "intelligence" document, was nothing more than a piece of propaganda assembled neither by intelligence staff, nor by Middle East experts, but by U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair's press spokesmen Alistair Cambell and a few low level office helpers. Key sections of the document were plagiarized from published articles and a student paper, some of which information was more than 12 years old. Eager to help incriminate Iraq, and sensationalize government claims, the authors of this fraudulent document changed words in the article they plagiarized from Oxford-based graduate student Ibrahim al-Marashi, for example substituting "spying" for "monitoring," and "terrorist organizations" for "opposition groups."

For more information, see "First casualties in the propaganda firefight," The Observer, 9 February 2003, and "Downing Street dossier plagiarised," Channel Four News, 6 February 2003.

The revelations about the true origins of this 'intelligence document' have severely damaged the credibility of Blair's drive for war, although the U.S. media, who have largely praised Powell's performance as 'solid' and 'convincing' have barely picked the story up.

Reporters find nothing to support U.S. claims about 'poison factory' in northern Iraq

Showing a satellite image labelled, "Terrorist Poison and Explosives Factory, Khurmal," Powell stated to the Security Council:
"When our coalition ousted the Taliban, the Zarqawi network helped establish another poison and explosive training center camp, and this camp is located in northeastern Iraq. You see a picture of this camp. The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons. Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch -- imagine a pinch of salt -- less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock, followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within 72 hours and there is no antidote. There is no cure. It is fatal."
Powell said this camp was operated by a group called Ansar Al-Islam.

A group of journalists has now visited this camp, and found no evidence to back the U.S. claim. The Observer's Luke Harding who was among them, wrote,
"If Colin Powell were to visit the shabby military compound at the foot of a large snow-covered mountain, he might be in for an unpleasant surprise. The US Secretary of State last week confidently described the compound in north-eastern Iraq - run by an Islamic terrorist group Ansar al-Islam - as a 'terrorist chemicals and poisons factory.' Yesterday, however, it emerged that the terrorist factory was nothing of the kind - more a dilapidated collection of concrete outbuildings at the foot of a grassy sloping hill. Behind the barbed wire, and a courtyard strewn with broken rocket parts, are a few empty concrete houses. There is a bakery. There is no sign of chemical weapons anywhere - only the smell of paraffin and vegetable ghee used for cooking. In the kitchen, I discovered some chopped up tomatoes but not much else."("Revealed: truth behind US 'poison factory' claim," The Observer, 9 February 2003)
The BBC's Jim Muir reported on 9 February,
"Journalists have visited the alleged chemical weapons site in Kurdish-held northern Iraq that US Secretary of State Colin Powell says is run by an Islamic group linked to al-Qaeda. But they saw no obvious evidence of chemical weapons production."("Journalists visit Iraq 'chemical weapons site'," BBC News Online, 9 February 2003)
Rather, said Muir, "When we visited it was crawling with Ansar gunmen but nothing more sinister than small arms was on display."

Experts undermine U.S. claims of Al-Qaida presence in northern Iraq

Powell drew a link between Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Qaida, stating:
"Those helping to run this camp are Zarqawi lieutenants operating in northern Kurdish areas outside Saddam Hussein's controlled Iraq. But Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization Ansar al-Islam that controls this corner of Iraq. In 2000, this agent offered al-Qaida safe haven in the region. After we swept al-Qaida from Afghanistan, some of those members accepted this safe haven. They remain there today."
The claim that there are links between Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Qaida has been challenged by the prestigious international think tank, International Crisis Group (ICG). Although ICG cautions that it is not in a position to evaluate U.S. claims independently as it does not have researchers on the ground, it does note that the American claims "appear principally to be based on interrogations of detainees." ("Radical Islam In Iraqi Kurdistan: The Mouse That Roared?" International Crisis Group, 7 February 2003)

ICG concludes from its extensive review of available evidence, that,
"in the run-up to a possible war in Iraq, there is no hard evidence to suggest that Ansar al-Islam is more than a minor irritant in local Kurdish politics."
ICG's report says that much of the focus on Ansar Al-Islam is a result of claims by a rival faction in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK):
"The PUK has played a significant role in bringing Ansar al-Islam to the foreground of the debate. Correctly reading the signals emanating from Washingon in the aftermath of 11 September, the PUK has ratcheted up its rhetoric against Islamists who for years have sought to spread their control over an area the PUK considers its exclusive province [...] Whatever the merits of the PUK's claims, it may have succeeded in its strategy of drawing the U.S. into this essentially local conflict."
The Observer's Luke Harding concluded that while Ansar al-Islam
"appear to pose no real threat to Washington or London, Ansar's fighters are a brutal bunch. They have so far killed more than 800 opposition Kurdish fighters. They have shot dead several civilians. They have even tried - last April - to assassinate the Prime Minister of the neighbouring town of Sulamaniyah, the mild-mannered Dr Barham Salih."
In sum, it appears that the United States has, with no hard evidence, asserted bold claims about links between Al-Qaida and an armed band who appeared to be involved in nothing more than a bloody local power struggle.

More questions about reliability of U.S. satellite imagery

Powell relied heavily on satellite imagery to make his case to the Security Council. It is now clear that the U.S. claims about the presence of a 'terrorist poison factory' in northern Iraq, allegedly shown in a satellite image, have been dispelled by visiting international journalists who found nothing but a band of rag-tag fighters with small arms.

Powell also supplied what he said were satellite images of prohibited Iraqi government installations. The Iraqis acknowledge that the images Powell displayed are indeed contemporary images of Iraq, but claim that U.S. interpretation of the images is misleading or false. For example, at a 6 February press conference in Baghdad, Iraqi official Amer Al-Saadi asserted that the U.S. should have been able to tell that "warhead canisters" in one image were simply too small to contain the kind of missile parts that Powell said they contained.

Al-Saadi also asserted that an image of a rocket-engine test facility that Powell said was used for a prohibited long-range weapons program, was actually a facility for refurbishing short-range, non-prohibited missiles, and that the facility had already been visited by UN inspectors.

The UN inspection agency, UNMOVIC, has yet to prounounce a formal opinion on either the U.S. claims about these images or the Iraqi rebuttal, and it is necessary to wait for UNMOVIC's assessment before reaching any conclusions on either side's claims.

Yet, we know from the 1991 Gulf War that the United States has used unsubstantiated and perhaps false claims about satellite imagery to justify a march to war. The Guardian's Maggie O'Kane writes,
"in the final days before the war started on January 9 [1991], the Pentagon insisted that not only was Saddam Hussein not withdrawing from Kuwait - he was - but that he had 265,000 troops poised in the desert to pounce on Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon claimed to have satellite photographs to prove it. Thus, the waverers and anti-war protesters were silenced."("This time I'm scared: US propaganda fuelled the first Gulf war. It will fuel this one too - and the risks are even greater," The Guardian, 5 December 2002)
O'Kane continues:
"We now know from declassified documents and satellite photographs taken by a Russian commercial satellite that there were no Iraqi troops poised to attack Saudi. At the time, no one bothered to ask for proof. No one except Jean Heller, a five-times nominated Pulitzer prize-winning journalist from the St Petersburg Times in Florida, who persuaded her bosses to buy two photos at $1,600 each from the Russian commercial satellite, the Soyuz Karta. Guess what? No massing troops. "You could see the planes sitting wing tip to wing tip in Riyadh airport," Ms Heller says, "but there wasn't was any sign of a quarter of a million Iraqi troops sitting in the middle of the desert.""

Al-Qaida's World Wide 'terror network'

In these times, with people being rounded-up all over the world for alleged ties to "terrorism," it is easy to scare the public into believing that terrifying global networks that stand ready to pounce are everywhere around us. Powell tried to create this impression when he said:
"We know about this European network and we know about its links to Zarqawi because the detainees who provided the information about the targets also provided the names of members of the network. Three of those he identified by name were arrested in France last December. In the apartments of the terrorists, authorities found circuits for explosive devices and a list of ingredients to make toxins. The detainee who helped piece this together says the plot also targeted Britain. Later evidence again proved him right. When the British unearthed the cell there just last month, one British police officer was murdered during the destruction of the cell."
Yet the day after Mr. Powell's claim, The Guardian reported:
"British security sources last night were quick to distance themselves from Colin Powell's claim that the murder of the special branch officer Stephen Oake in Manchester was linked to a leading al-Qaida terrorist harboured by Iraq [...] Security sources last night said there was no solid evidence to support Mr Powell's allegations. One referred to "jumping to conclusions", and suggested that the US was making a leap too far." ("Britain disputes terror link to police murder," The Guardian, 6 February 2003)
Similarly, at a 31 January 2003 joint press conference with U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush asserted:
"Today Italy rounded up yet another cell of people who are willing to use weapons of mass destruction on those of us who love freedom."
In fact, it is still far from clear that the twenty-eight Pakistanis arrested in Naples that day are anything other than what they say they are: poor, hardworking immigrants struggling to send home a few pennies to their families.

On the day of those arrests, the Associated Press reported that an Italian "police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said late Friday officers "might have gotten ahead of themselves" in announcing an al-Qaida link in the headline of their press release." ("Italian police arrest 28 Pakistanis, find explosives, maps," Associated Press, 31 January 2003)

Essential to the case, is the Italian claim that explosives and maps were found when the twenty-eight men were arrested during a sweep for undocumented immigrants (although not even the Italians asserted, as President Bush did, that the Pakistanis possessed, or intended to use "weapons of mass destruction.")

On 8 February, The Guardian reported that
"Sources close to the investigations say the evidence of a link between the materials seized and the 28 men is scanty. The task of pinning the evidence to any of them is extremely difficult and the real owners may still be at large."
The newspaper also noted that "many recent terrorism sweeps have subsequently proved to be false alarms," and quoted Italian Green Party member of parliament, Paolo Cento, warning that there have been repeated "episodes of (police) checks and files that have nothing to do with the necessary investigation work to prevent and suppress terrorism." ("Doubts grow over al-Qaida arrests in Italy: Pakistan insists 28 suspects held in Naples have no terrorism links," The Guardian, 8 February 2003)

Obviously, the attacks on 11 September 2001 make it undeniable that authorities must be concerned about uncovering similar plots before it is too late. What appears to be going on here, however, is not the careful, sober police and intelligence work that is needed, but sensational, premature and often false claims being woven together and exaggerated for political purposes, in this case to support a wholly unconnected attack on Iraq. The effect is to alarm the public, throw the scent off the trail of real conspirators, and to increase the xenophobia and discrimination against Muslim and Arab people.


It is clear that Powell's presentation, to the extent that it raised any valid questions about Iraqi compliance with UN Resolution 1441, raised as many or more questions about the truthfulness and reliability of U.S. claims. What is in not in doubt is that Powell did not make a case for war.

Related Links
  • Reactions to Powell, the speech dissected (6 February 2003)

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